Best Affordable Pilot Watches You Can Buy | 2023
Daniel Louwrens20 September 2023 | 15 min read
A pilot’s watch. Immediately your brain swoons at the idea of being a jet setter with more money than sense, or air-force fighter in your crammed cockpit fighting the bad guys.
The only problem is a Big Pilot is costing close to your yearly rent at this point.
And don’t even get me started on the price of something like a Sky-Dweller. Surely there must be a way of getting a taste of the sky without sky-high prices, right?
Personally, I don’t believe you should cheap out and go for the easy fix. If you want a Big Pilot, save for it.
However, if you are not looking for a particular watch and just want something this style, well then, we’ve got 10 options for you to consider!
What classifies as a Pilot’s Watch?
Before we can ramble down the best Pilot options that won’t leave your bank account wrecked, we might want to consider some of the ‘rules’ that make something a Pilot’s watch vs. just a really big watch that’s pretty legible, you know?
Firstly, a pilot watch doesn’t have to have a military or jet setter history. That said, it has to have functionality that is somehow tied to flying in one way or another.
This might be with the addition of a GMT function or a really legible dial specifically designed alongside a thin bezel for that Flieger look.
Secondly, whereas field watches may or may not have some insulation against magnetic fields, it’s nearly essential that a pilot’s watch must.
Sitting that close to engines will certainly mess with your watch. We will not limit this list to options that do have protection, but we will certainly keep it in mind.
Lastly, you have to at least look like a pilot’s watch. This means complications, a large dial, a legible dial, and (probably) a leather strap.
Once again, this will depend on the price point and what watch enthusiasts consider ‘large’, so, we won’t be too serious with this one.
Cost-Effective vs Cheap
Lastly, before we break down the list, we need to consider what makes a watch affordable (cost-effective) vs what makes a watch cheap.
A massive difference, really. Creating a vintage look with fake patina and yellowish hands with a poor movement inside coupled with second-grade finishing isn’t exactly doing your client justice, especially if they are spending good money.
Taking just a little bit more care and finding a good alternative (be it a bit more expensive) is going to pay itself back tenfold. You don’t need a Swiss Automatic Movement. However, a Chinese movement produced by the 1,000s at a Swiss price is, well, bold, to say the least. The same can be said for a water-resistant case that’s limited to 50m.
Sure, pilot watches are known for being on the low end. However, the price should reflect the features and design of the watch.
So, we won’t merely be looking at great prices but rather what the watch offers as a whole…
10 Best Inexpensive Pilot Watches to Buy in 2023
In no particular order, here are the 10 Best Inexpensive Pilot Watches on Sale in 2023. We will not consider second-hand or market options, and this will not be ranked at all. This is merely a list of the best ones you can find.
1: Laco Altenburg 42
Laco is a brand that certainly makes the case known that they aspire to create traditional pilot watches. Screw a water-resistant case. Why would you even need that? You’re going in the opposite direction!
Reminiscent of some of your favourite pilot watches that are too expensive, they cut down costs in ways that are ‘worth it’, like opting for third-party movements.
This means they can focus on quality, design, and making watches that do their job as well as they possibly could.
The Altenburg 42, as the name suggests, sports a 42mm case that matches with a rather simple dial. No date wheel, no day wheel, simple and large Arabic numerals, and a rather dainty ‘Laco’ scripture. What you do get for your money is this beautiful Flieger design, somewhat similar to old Big Pilots.
The PVD-plated steel case is now black rather than silver, and when matched with the black dial creates a rather stealthy and cool look – exactly what some of us consider when we think of pilots.
The movement within is the Laco 2S (Miyota 82S0), which can be upgraded to the Laco 31, which offers an increased power reserve of 60 hours and has an improved appearance as well.
Unlike other brands that only offer one option with their watches, Laco goes out of its way to offer the watches they make not only in different sizes but with different movements and even different types of movements as well!
You can get a reliable Japanese quartz movement in here as well, granting you a classic pilot watch look with even more reliability.
Prices seem to fluctuate wherever you buy from, so, it’s a bit hard to tell what the actual MSRP is at this moment. That said, it certainly is an affordable price for what you are getting and certainly a great first watch as well.
2: Seiko Flightmaster SNA411
Seiko is not only a byword for quality but also for value – so you can see why this Japanese giant is on the list.
Best known for the incredible divers they have been producing over the years, Seiko continues to innovate with different designs and styles to be all things to all men. And, upon a close look at their catalogue, you’ll notice they really do have everything for everything.
From a wee Cartier Tank opponent to a 1,000m diver to this SNA411 Flightmaster, which draws design elements from pilot watches that were meant to be used in navigation. Imagine, if you will, a Japanese Breitling Navitimer of sorts.
The Flightmaster has been the archetypal plot offering in the Seiko lineup for quite some time, and does so with a 42mm polished case matched with a polished four-link bracelet.
What is different to your typical pilot’s watch is the remarkable 200m water resistance rating – something we don’t see too often on pilot watches.
The dial and bezel design are about as subtle as a military jet – it’s all business from a slide rule bezel to multiple chronograph subdials and even a date aperture. This is something that was clearly designed with the aviation industry in mind and was designed to be used in flight.
Keeping the vintage design isn’t a priority here, but the hardlex crystal does help slightly. The watch is rather thick, accommodating a quartz movement within.
Couple the 42mm case size with the thick design, and it’s not a watch for everyone, but it’s not as bad as something like a Seiko Monster, which barely fits anyone.
This seems like the most subtle way to dial things to 11 when it comes to functional pilot watches. You can expect a reasonable price of around $500, and for that, you really cannot go wrong. Perhaps the only drawback is that in recent years, the quality of the Seiko’s being released has dropped.
That said, in the past few months, Seiko has taken note of this and begun to improve production methods as well as finishing control. I guess the only reason you wouldn’t want one is because you have your eyes on a Citizen Nighthawk.
3: Citizen Promaster Nighthawk
The other beast from the East worth mentioning is the Citizen Nighthawk. Citizen is the ‘natural enemy of Seiko’ and has various options that are compatible with Seiko.
In fact, both companies are known for producing a wide range of products to meet the needs of many but also producing some extremely particular models for your local enthusiast.
Citizen has also been known to push the boundaries when it comes to design – some for the good and some for the bad.
Many find these models polarizing. However, I can appreciate a company doing something unique and different, and I believe this needs to be rewarded. One of these ‘aspirational’ watches is the famous Promaster Nighthawk.
It’s big, It’s bold. And it’s not here to mess about. This can be said for all of the Promaster range, especially something like the Nighthawk. Your eyes are immediately drawn to the olive green strap, which secures the familiar two-tone 42mm case, offering a blend of exposed and coated steel.
As with the Flightmaster, your slide rule bezel allows you to do various different calculations – if you know how to, unfortunately, most do not.
That said, it’s romantic to know that your watch is capable of doing something amazing if needed. The Nighthawk also has the addition of a solar movement within, particularly the B877 Eco-Drive, enabling you to virtually forget about power reserve or battery life.
Overall, this is a remarkable watch for a remarkable price. Currently, it’s even on special for $400! Date window, second-time zone, rotating bezel (of sorts), and mineral crystal glass for that proper vintage feel.
This is the type of watch you might actually use when out and about; plus, because they are so cheap, you wouldn’t feel too bad if it got dinged up. As predictable as it sounds, the offerings from Seiko and Citizen are exceptional value – no argument about it.
4: Hamilton Khaki Aviation Converter Auto Chrono
Right. I will admit this is a large price jump from the previous offering. That said, as many will tell you, when you’re thinking about buying your first Swiss automatic watch, you simply cannot go wrong with Hamilton.
Unlike some others on this list, Hamilton actually has a history as a watch producer for the military.
Hamilton is also known for producing some of the most beautiful vintage-inspired watches you can think of. This Khaki Aviation Converter might not exactly be ‘vintage-inspired’, but boy, does it live up to the pilot nomenclature.
For tense and purposes, I’m going to stick to the blue model with the leather strap because it just looks…
Well, in a sense, beautiful in a simplistic kind of way.
This Khaki offers the typical “rotating slide-rule bezel to calculate critical conversions and metrics at a glance”, according to Hamilton. Will you actually use it for that? Well, I can tell you from personal experience that your Tinder date will not give a rat’s arse about it. Her loss.
Regardless, this is actually something that old pilots did use, and so can you. Spots of red on the bezel, dial, and Chrono hand does create quite a lot of dimension and makes you feel that much more special when you look at it.
Also, as the name suggests, the Chrono does offer a chronograph function, which isn’t something we typically see on pilot’s watches, and is thanks to the H-21-Si movement within, which is based on the ETA 7750 movement.
44 mm diameter with a 14.6mm thickness does mean the watch wears this side of ‘large’, and this is purely thanks to that chrono movement within. But it also means you have a 100m water resistance! Sure, this might not be for those with small wrists, but with the deep blue colour matched with that leather strap, you have a watch that is so elegantly gorgeous in its utilitarianism.
There is a non-chrono option that is a bit less expensive, seeing as this chrono option is listed CHF 1,995.00 (or $2,200). You do get a sapphire glass and an open caseback to allow you to see the beautiful mechanics inside.
As extra features go, it has a rather simple day-date function as well. It also comes in black, which is a tad boring if you ask me, but what do I know?
5: Oris Big Crown Pointer Date Steel
While the majority of the Oris’ catalogue is growing under the vast fame of the diver ranges they offer, like the Aquis, they still offer a host of other watches worth noting as well! Chief among these are going to be the aviation and pilot watches they offer, like the ProPilot.
Oris is also one of the few brands left on the planet that operates as an individual entity rather than under the guidance of a conglomerate. This allows them to truly spread their wings and develop some rather interesting options.
The Big Crown Pointer Date is one of those interesting options. Now, right off the bat, this is not my taste. For tense and purposes, I’ll cover the 80th Anniversary model, costing around CHF 2,300.00.
It’s offered with a 40mm bronze case, and when matched with the olive green dial, you really create a colour palette that was incredibly famous in 2022 (see the BMW M5 CS, also green and gold).
The model line dates all the way back to 1938, and with so many different options available today, you’re sure to find something that suits you – even those with smaller wrists.
As the name suggests, this stylish pilot watch is presented with an oversized crown to allow the wearer to wear both it and gloves while retaining functionality. The most notable feature of this model line is the pointer date function, as indicated by a date hand with a red-tipped head.
To finish the elegance of the watch face, Oris has opted for the use of cathedral hands, something you don’t see too often, certainly not on a pilot or sports watch.
Beating within the brushed case is the Oris 754 calibre, which is based on the Sellita SW 200-1, offering the wearer 38 hours of power reserve. For some, a third-party movement (for the price) is a wee bit much, but in reality, you pay for the looks with this one.
6. Marathon Navigator
Alright, let’s bring the prices down for a bit, shall we? Introducing Marathon and the massive number of military-inspired watches and some beauties they have.
As opposed to the elegance of the Oris, Marathon is the first thing you think about when thinking about modern military watches.
They are still producing timepieces for the US and Canadian military, and when looking for that Call of Duty-esque (the old ones), this is the right place for you.
The Navigator is perhaps not the most famous model in the Marathon lineup, but it can hang with modern pilot watches. There are various different variations available, and for this article, we’ll be covering the 41mm Black Pilot’s Navigator.
Unlike the utterly complicated Seiko or Citizen layouts, the Navigator is rather… sparse. Perhaps the most ‘interesting’ part of the watch is the peculiar shape, which includes a crown guard that stretches from one lug to the next… Right. Not for everyone, but it certainly makes for a unique look.
The case is also not the conventional steel or titanium but rather ‘High-Impact Composite Fibreshell’, which is not only light but rather robust as well. Plus, with a matte finish, it really does seem like something that belongs in a late 1990s action film.
The dial is of the ‘Type B’ variant, meaning you have a 24-hour display on the dial rather than the regular 1 through 12.
The site claims this is built for any environment, and I have to believe them. I’ve had the luxury of handling one of these, and it is like a little Jack Russel Terrier.
It might not be as big or as intimidating as some of the other options on this list, but with its NATO strap and high-torque ETA quartz movement within, it truly has a gritty and ‘try and stop me’ attitude. Plus, it’s only $450 – a steal, really.
7. IWC Mark (Something…)
Imagine there was a watch actually called ‘The Something”… I’m imagining a Jacob & CO…
Nevertheless, we couldn’t write an article about pilot watches without talking about the daddy – IWC.
The only problem is this particular daddy is surely the sugar kind, i.e. it’s pretty darn expensive. And we are actually looking at affordable options, new affordable watches, to be exact.
Well, I’m saying screw the rules and proposing one exception – the IWC Mark (any model). The Mark line isn’t the full-blown and grown-up Big Pilot, and it isn’t even the semi-skim 43mm Big Pilot, but it certainly offers more to those who like a watch with a sub 40 mm size case.
The Mark series has an incredibly rich history and was first introduced as the ‘Spezialuhr für Flieger (Special Pilot’s Watch)’ and has since continued to play an integral part in the IWC catalogue.
As mentioned, with a smaller size and more conventional crown, the watch is certainly more ‘obtainable’ to most and easier to wear. While you could look at truly vintage offerings, I think the Mark XVI – XX are the options to look at.
Sizes vary from 39 – 41mm, and all bring something unique to the recipe, even though the meal remained the same… A date function here, a small seconds subdial there, an improved movement dropped in elegantly, and then with the recently released XX, an in-house movement and improved water resistance.
This solves most of the problems that have bothered the Mark range for years. Paired with a stainless steel bracelet, it really is the perfect daily watch if you like the Flieger style but can’t be bothered to wear an oversized case.
Personally, this is my favourite on the list. Mark XX, white dial, steel bracelet.
I’ll just ignore the price tag north of CHF 5,000… I hope that you do too…
8. Sinn Modell 903 ST
Okay, so, I’m going to bend the rules again once more and introduce another watch that has actually been off the market for quite some time, and this time we’re off to Germany!
Of course, we’ll be talking about SINN, a company that has become synonymous with utilitarianism and crafting some of the most interesting military-inspired pieces.
Sinn is also known, upon a closer look, for producing finishes that are more robust and ‘hard’ than any other – seriously, have a look online and you’ll learn that people love this brand for the ability they have to produce watches that can withstand just about anything and everything…
Again, we are veering in a price range that might not be considered as ‘affordable’ by many, seeing as this particular model will run you a couple of thousands of dollars. That said, it is a looker, isn’t it? It has this Breitling Navtimer look, with certain models bringing their own spin as well.
Aviation watches will sometimes be quite bare for the sake of legibility, like the Mark range. The Model 903 takes a whole other approach.
There is almost zero real estate left on this dial, seeing as you have a slide rule bezel and the classic three-subregister chronograph display as well.
There are different dial options available, and you can opt for the famous black or rarer white or blue dials.
Personally, I am a sucker for a white dial. The case is a manageable 41mm and while the finish was amazing, most of these are worn and will carry some wear and tear.
That said, the polished elements along the case sides and classically proportioned pump pushers does grant some elegance to this aviation-themed watch, having you feel slightly elevated for lack of a better term.
Most dials will also come with tritium used as luminescent material, meaning you can expect some lovely patina as time goes on. Powering these handsome timepieces are usually the Lumenia movements, a tried and tested company that was available in various chronographs of yesteryear.
Overall, keep it unpolished on a fresh leather strap and know you’ll be one of the coolest guys at the bar.
9. Farer Morgan Pilot
Farer is another affordable (really) option I would love to highlight. This British brand was established in 2015 but hasn’t been messing around, creating some interesting options for you to consider.
After the first mechanical watches were introduced in 2016, the company really took off and became one of the watch brands that should be on your radar… For case and purposes, the Morgan Pilot!
Here we have a reverse Type B Dial, meaning your 1 through 12 is on the inner dial whilst your Arabic minute markers are around the outer perimeter, a design feature we do not see every day! A lovely blend of the dark blue dial with light blue hands and the orange-tipped second’s hand is actually pretty attractive!
As you might expect, the Farer Morgan features a Faraday cage in the case to keep the level of anti-magnetism to 500 gauss, something that most ‘real’ pilot watches have.
Purists will also be happy to learn there is no date display, and the watch measures a dainty 39mm in diameter, but due to the domed crystal, it wears even smaller.
Finishing things off, we have a lovely mesh bracelet with pretty decent finishing. While it’s good, it is perhaps not on the level of the PRX – which is slightly disappointing, seeing as the entry point of this Morgan Pilot sits around $1,000.
This is even more of a letdown when you learn they make use of the Swiss Made Sellita SW200-1.
To be honest, the idea that in-house movements are far superior to third-party ones is very 2002, and overall, this is a really attractive watch that takes the typical Flieger design and adds a little spice… Lovely!
10. CWC RAF Pilot’s Quartz Chronograph
For the last option on the list, why do we not make our way across the pond and pay a wee little visit to the lovely chaps in England.
You can imagine CWC as the British alternative to Swedish military brands, seeing as they have a long history of producing watches for the UK military and now for the public as well.
The charming designs are simple, elegant, and in an odd way, cute. This RAF Quartz Chronograph is one of those options, as it has a very similar design to the RAF of yesteryear!
You are met with a 40mm matte case which, when matched with the NATO strap, is perhaps the most under-the-radar option on this list.
Within, you have the reliable Ronda 5030 quartz movement (leave your mechanical snobbery at home!), which is really applicable in a military environment.
The lug-to-lug of 46mm will make the watch wear seamlessly, and with an incredibly legible dial, this is certainly one worth talking about, especially if you love everything Queen and Country…
Certainly, we could mention how the Cartier Santos was the first pilot watch ever created for Alberto Santos-Dumont.
We could mention how it has stood the test of time to become a luxury timepiece, and that’s exactly it – it doesn’t really function as a pilot watch anymore.
The other offerings on this list certainly do. From Type A to Type B to slide rules to massive dials with semi-skin bezels, we have it all.
The one thing you can be sure of is that you’ll be able to look down and know that your watch was made for a purpose.
Some, more so than others, have literal wars in their history – it’s seen dogfights! If you’re lucky enough to afford one, and you’re lucky enough to afford one you love, go for it.
Don’t even think of it. Just do it. In a world brimming with elegant pieces and sports watches, stand out with a big dial, a large crown, and a design that says I mean business.